Archival Collections
Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Kent Family papers, 1785-1901 

Creator: 
Kent (Family)
Phys. Desc: 
2.10 linear feet (5 document boxes)
Call Number: 
MS#0703,MS#0703
Location: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Biographical Note

James Kent (1763-1847) was an American jurist and legal scholar. He graduated from Yale College in 1781 and began to practice law at Poughkeepse, NY, in 1785 as an attorney, and in 1787 at the Bar. From 1791-1793 Kent was a representative of Dutchess County in the State Assembly. In 1793 he removed to New York, where Governer Jay, to whom Kent's Federalist sympathies were a strong recommendation, appointed him Master in Chancery for the City. Kent was the first professor of law at Columbia College in 1793-1798. He served the assembly again in 1796-1797. In 1797 he became Recorder of New York, in 1798 Judge of the Supreme Court of New York, in 1804 Chief Justice, and in 1814 Chancellor of New York. In 1822 Kent became a member of the convention to revise the state constitution where he unsuccessfully opposed the raising of the property qualification for African American voters. The following year Chancellor Kent resigned his office and resumed teaching at Columbia College. Out of the lectures he delivered at this time came his Commentaries on American Law (4 volumes, 1826-1830), modeled after his tremendous respect for William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). Chancery law had been very unpopular during the Colonial and early American eras. Kent's opinions of this class are considered to be a basis for American equity jurisprudence. Kent was also responsible for first enunciating what would become the Cherokee doctrine, the idea that American Indian peoples, though subject, were sovereign nations. Kent married Elizabeth Bailey, and they had four children: Elizabeth (died in infancy), Elizabeth, Mary, and William Kent. James Kent's brother, Moss Kent (1766-1838) was a lawyer from Dutchess County, New York, and the first Surrogate of Rensselaer County, New York. He was appointed first judge of Jefferson County in 1795 and moved to Cooperstown. He was a member of the New York State Senate from 1799 to 1803 and served in the New York State Assembly in 1807 and 1810. He was appointed judge of Jefferson County in 1810, and was elected as a Federalist to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Congresses (1813-1817) as the representative for the newly created New York's 18th congressional district. Afterword, he resumed the practice of law until his death in 1838. William Kent (1802-1861), the only son of James Kent, was a circuit judge. He graduated from Union College with a B.A. in 1820 and a M.A. in 1823. William studied law and practiced in New York City. He was appointed Judge of the Circuit Court of New York City by Governor Seward, serving from 1841 to 1845. Kent resigned that post to accept the Royall professorship of law at Harvard, which he held in 1846-1847. He resigned that post, and returned to New York City where he became one of the founders of the New York University Law School. Shortly thereafter, in 1852, William Kent ran as a Whig for New York State Lieutenant Governor with Washington Hunt but lost to Democrat Sanford Church. William Kent married Helen Riggs of New York City (the granddaughter of Col. William Burnett, the Surveyor-General of the Continental Army). They had one son, James, born on September 21, 1830. Judge William Kent died on January 4, 1861, at Fishkill Landing, NY. John Seely Stone (1795-1882), whose journal is included in this collection, was a clergyman for St. Paul's Cathedral in Boston, MA, and the son in law of James Kent through his daughter, Mary. In Stone's congregation and also in the Kent's correspondence are Daniel Webster (1782-1852), American statesman, and his wife Catherine Le Roy Webster. Lastly, the personal correspondence of Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828) and his wife are also represented in this collection. Pinckney was an early American statesman, diplomat, and veteran of both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

Scope and Contents

The Kent Family Papers contains letters, manuscripts, journals, and documents of the Kent family. The bulk of this material is the papers of James Kent and of William Kent. The correspondence represents a broad spectrum of 19th century figures prominent in the legal, political, and literary fields. The manuscripts and documents, primarily legal in character, include essays, legal opinions by different jurists, memoranda on legal questions, and resolutions of various groups upon the death of Chancellor Kent. The documents also include wills, deeds, invitations, certificates, Chancellor Kent's legal opinions of cases submitted to him, and his notes on various authors. In addition to material relating to the Kent family there are journals, autographs, letters, and memorabilia collected by the Pinckney and Webster families while they were in London during the 1790s and, the1830s. This includes calling cards, stamps, clippings, engravings, currency, silhouettes, and many autographs of the Revolutionary period. There are also several diaries and journals. These include an account of a journey from New York to the eastern states; Chancellor Kent's journal on the Napoleonic Campaign, 1807-1808, his journal of the campaigns including action between the United States and Great Britain in the War of 1812, and his personal diaries, 1843-1847; and a journal of a tour in Europe, 1826, kept by Mary Kent Stone (Mrs. John Seely Stone).